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Michael Cohen's testimony just piled more pressure on Trump to win in 2020 — or risk prison

Michael Cohen may well be a liar, but he's a liar who kept receipts.

That may prove incriminating for his former boss Donald Trump, opening the U.S. president to a level of criminal exposure that will be hard for impeachment-leery lawmakers to ignore, and raising the stakes on Trump's 2020 re-election bid as a must-win contest for him to duck potential jail time.

Cohen testified Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee in an open hearing on Capitol Hill. The former fixer and personal attorney to President Trump shared documentary evidence with Congress that he said points to alleged criminal wrongdoing by the president.

As part of damning public testimony that characterized Trump as "a cheat," "a conman" and "a racist," Cohen presented copies of Trump's personal financial statements, as well as a copy of the $ 130,000 US wire transfer to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels' attorney and a signed cheque from Trump's personal bank account for illegal "hush money" payments in 2016 to Daniels to cover up her alleged extra-marital affair with Trump.

Cohen, who said Trump instructed him to lie to the public about the payments after becoming president, implored members of the panel not just to take his word for it.

"I want you to look at the documents. I want you to make your own decision," he said.

Trump's signature on a cheque would appear to support the allegation he was involved in an illegal campaign contribution. The unreported payment to Daniels far exceeded the $ 2,700 US maximum for an individual in a general election.

'Legal jeopardy' 

With the new evidence pointing to possible campaign finance violations to buy her silence, Trump's re-election in 2020 might be the surest way to make his deepening criminal exposure go away. 

"Of course it's a consideration. I'm sure it's crossed his mind," said Steven Billet, director of the Masters in Legislative Affairs at George Washington University. "The president is a very calculating man, and he understands the legal jeopardy he faces."

This image provided by Michael Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, shows copies of two cheques that Cohen presented to the committee on Wednesday. Cohen said Trump wrote the cheques from his personal bank account after he became president as a reimbursement for payments Cohen made to buy the silence of adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. (Lanny Davis via Associated Press)

The calculus is based on U.S. Department of Justice guidelines that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The statute of limitations on most federal offences, including the campaign finance violation, is five years. Without an indictment within that timeframe, it washes away.

That means Trump can likely preserve his liberty as long as wins another term. But if Trump is voted out of the Oval Office next year, "there's nothing that would protect him," said Brian Klaas, a political scientist at the University College London and author of The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy.

Republican members on the panel noted correctly— and repeatedly — during Cohen's public testimony on Wednesday that he's facing a three-year sentence for making knowingly false statements to Congress in 2017. What doesn't lie is a hard paper record such as a hush-money reimbursement cheque signed by Trump, Klaas said.

"The Republican strategy of discrediting [Cohen] as a liar does not make that cheque disappear. The cheque, to me, is the big story here because it corroborates." 

Klaas said Cohen's Wednesday testimony will intensify calls for Trump's impeachment and pressure House Democrats still hesitant about that idea.

"What is impeachment for, if not to remove a president who committed crimes while in office?" he asked.

A corroborated federal crime would be difficult for lawmakers to disregard, even if it appears unlikely a Republican-dominated Senate would vote to convict and expel Trump.


If maintaining Trump's innocence is crucial, Republican lawmakers on Wednesday appeared preoccupied instead with picking apart Cohen's credibility. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally, was among those who found the Republican members' questions lacking.

"There hasn't been one Republican yet who's tried to defend the president on the substance," Christie remarked on ABC News. "That should be concerning to the White House."

Meanwhile, Cohen's testimony has potentially opened Trump to more criminal exposure on multiple new fronts. Cohen testified Trump "knew about the release of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of time," suggesting that Trump was aware of Russia's alleged involvement in the scheme.

U.S. President Donald Trump is meeting with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi for a summit on defusing tensions between the countries, but took time out in Vietnam to criticize his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, on Twitter. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

"If Trump encouraged or provided advice about the timing of the release, then he could be added as a co-conspirator," said former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade.

If it's true that Trump's lawyers reviewed and edited his prior false testimony to Congress in 2017, as Cohen also alleged on Wednesday, that presents a risk of charges that Trump was involved in conspiracy to suborn perjury.

McQuade is interested in seeing how Trump's written answers to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller for the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election "match up" with Cohen's testimony.

"If Mueller concludes that Trump lied, he could face impeachment articles for obstruction of justice," she said.

More testimony

The impeachment question now looks thornier for Republicans than it did before Cohen's testimony, said Michael Gerhardt, an expert on impeachment at the University of North Carolina. It was the Republicans, after all, who went after former president Bill Clinton for lying under oath about an affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"One question will be whether any of the charges Cohen makes against Trump rise to a similar level of impeachable conduct," Gerhardy said. 

Determining whether a signed check could be used as evidence of an impeachable offence rests on two things: Whether Trump acted in bad faith, and whether this violation of the law caused "serious injury" to the republic, he said.

Michael Cohen will testify again on Thursday in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

What Republicans will be scrambling to minimize, he said, is allegations Trump may have acted in bad faith or deliberately flouted the law. That's a question that Cohen seemed to answer during questioning by Democratic lawmaker Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Asked by the congresswoman if the hush-money payments were made to influence the 2016 election's outcome, Cohen sounded resolute.

“The answer is yes,” he said. 

Cohen returns to Capitol Hill on Thursday for another round of testimony, the last of three back-to-back hearings. It will be a closed-door meeting with the House Intelligence Committee.

He is scheduled to report to prison in May.

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'Bodies piled up on top of me': Survivors recall Egypt's horrific mosque attack

They arrived in five SUVs, took positions across from the mosque’s door and windows, and just as the imam was about to deliver his Friday sermon from atop the pulpit, they opened fire and tossed grenades at the estimated 500 worshippers, many of them Sufis, inside.

When the violence finally stopped, more than 300 people, including 27 children, had been killed and 128 injured.

As the gunfire rang out and the blasts shook the mosque, worshippers screamed and cried out in pain. A stampede broke out in the rush toward a door leading to the washrooms. Others tried desperately to force their way out of the windows.

Those who survived spoke of children screaming as they saw parents and older brothers mowed down by gunfire or shredded by the blasts. Some marveled at their narrow escape from a certain death. Some families lost all or most male members in the massacre.

GRAPHIC WARNING: Aftermath of mosque attack in Egypt0:55

So composed were the militants that they methodically checked their victims for any sign of life after the initial round of blazing gunfire. Those still moving or breathing received a bullet to the head or the chest, the witnesses said. When the ambulances arrived they shot at them, repelling them as they got back into their vehicles and fled.

A grim milestone

Friday’s assault was Egypt’s deadliest attack by Islamic extremists in the country’s modern history, a grim milestone in a long-running fight against an insurgency led by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group. Al-Rawdah Mosque was in a sleepy village by the same name in Egypt’s troubled northern Sinai, near the small town of Bir al-Abd.

A statement by the country’s chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, said the attackers, some masked, numbered between 25 and 30. Those without masks sported heavy beards and long hair, it added. Clad in military-style camouflage pants and black T-shirts, one of them carried a black banner with the declaration of the Muslim faith — there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.

‘Everyone lay down on the floor and kept their heads down. If you raised your head you got shot.’– Ebid Salem Mansour, attack survivor

The banner matched those carried by ISIS, which has not claimed responsibility for the attack.

They also torched seven cars parked outside the mosque that belonged to worshippers, the statement added.

The chief prosecutor’s statement was the most detailed account given by authorities and it generally agreed with what witnesses told The Associated Press on Saturday in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, where some of the wounded are hospitalized.

“We knew that the mosque was under attack by [militants],” said witness Ebid Salem Mansour, recalling the intense gunfire. Mansour, a 38-year-old worker in a nearby salt factory, said he had settled in Bir al-Abd three years ago to escape the bloodshed and fighting elsewhere in northern Sinai. He suffered two gunshot wounds to his legs on Friday.

“Everyone lay down on the floor and kept their heads down. If you raised your head you got shot,” he said. “The shooting was random and hysterical at the beginning and then became more deliberate. Whoever they weren’t sure was dead or still breathing was shot dead.”

The militants were shouting Allahu Akbar, or God is great, as they fired at the worshippers and the children were screaming, Mansour added.

“I knew I was injured but I was in a situation that was much scarier than being wounded. I was only seconds away from a certain death,” he said.

Amid the shooting many worshippers recited their final prayers, he added.

Sufis targeted

Friday’s attack targeted a mosque frequented by Sufis, members of a mystic movement within Islam. Islamic militants, including the local ISIS affiliate, consider Sufis heretics because of their less literal interpretations of the faith.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi vowed that the attack “will not go unpunished” and that Egypt would persevere with its war on terrorism. He did not specify what new steps might be taken. On Saturday, he ordered that a mausoleum be built in memory of the victims of Friday’s attack and cancelled a visit to the Gulf Sultanate of Oman that was scheduled for next week.


A photo released by Egypt’s presidency shows Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, centre, meeting with officials in Cairo after militants attacked a crowded mosque during Friday prayers on the Sinai Peninsula. (Egyptian presidency/Associated Press)

The military and security forces have already been waging a tough and costly campaign against militants in the towns, villages and desert mountains of northern Sinai, and Egypt has been in a state of emergency since April. Across the country, thousands have been arrested in a crackdown on suspected Islamists as well as against other dissenters and critics, raising concerns about human rights violations.

Seeking to spread the violence, militants over the past year have carried out deadly bombings on churches in the capital of Cairo and other cities, killing dozens of Christians. The ISIS affiliate is also believed to be behind the 2016 downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed 224 people over Sinai, an incident that crippled the country’s already ailing tourism industry.

Friday’s assault was the first major militant attack on a Muslim congregation, and it eclipsed past attacks, even dating back to a previous Islamic militant insurgency in the 1990s. The death of so many civilians in one day recalls the killing of at least 600 in August 2013, when Egyptian security forces broke up two sit-in protests in Cairo by supporters of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist president ousted by the military the previous month.

Another witness to Friday’s attack said worshippers tried to jump out of windows as soon as the militants opened fire.

“The small door that leads to the corridor for the washrooms was about the only one where worshippers rushed to escape,” said a 38-year-old government employee who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation.

“There was a stampede. I fell down and then bodies piled up on top of me,” he said.

Campaign of violence

The local ISIS group affiliate has targeted Sufis in the past.

Last year, the militants beheaded a leading local Sufi religious figure, the blind sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz, and posted photos of the killing online.


Some of the casualties in Bir al-Abd, Egypt, in the country’s North Sinai region on Friday. ( EPA)

Islamic State group propaganda often denounces Sufis. In the January edition of an ISIS online magazine, a figure purporting to be a high level official in the Sinai affiliate of the group vowed to target Sufis, accusing them of idolatry and heretical “innovation” in religion and warning that the group will “not permit (their) presence” in Sinai or Egypt.

Millions of Egyptians belong to Sufi orders, which hold sessions of ritual chanting and dancing to draw the faithful closer to God. Sufis also hold shrines containing the tombs of holy men in particular reverence.

Islamic militants stepped up their campaign of violence in northern Sinai after the military ousted the elected but divisive Morsi. Authorities followed up with a fierce crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group, jailing thousands.

The result has been a long, grinding conflict centred on el-Arish and nearby villages and towns in north Sinai. The militants have been unable to control territory, but the military and security forces have also been unable to bring security, as the extremists continuously carry out surprise attacks, mostly targeting outposts and convoys.

The attacks have largely focused on military and police and, more recently, Christians. Hundreds have been killed, although exact numbers are unclear. The militants have also assassinated individuals the group considers to be spies for the government or religious heretics. Egypt has also faced attacks by militants in its Western Desert.

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